Commentary

Odd offseason for the aging Phillies

Signing 36-year-old outfielder Marlon Byrd among Phils' few moves this winter

Originally Published: January 25, 2014
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

During this challenging offseason, Ruben Amaro Jr. can't help but recall his indoctrination as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, when the Citizens Bank Park seats were always full and the future beckoned with unlimited promise. He had barely rinsed the champagne from his hair after the 2008 World Series celebration when a family member offered a reality check on the hazards of replacing Pat Gillick at the franchise's absolute peak.

"I'll never forget the words my brother, David, told me: 'Could you take [the job] at a worse time? You have nowhere to go but down,'" Amaro recalled. "It was funny. I told him, 'It's my job to keep it up as long as I can.'"

[+] EnlargeMarlon Byrd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsMarlon Byrd, who played a key role in Pittsburgh's run to the playoffs in 2013, signed a two-year, $16M deal with Philadelphia this winter.

By the historical standards of an organization that was the first in Major League Baseball to reach 10,000 losses, the Phillies have enjoyed a sustained and gratifying run. They made the playoffs five straight years from 2007 through 2011 while increasing their win total every year (from 89 to 92 to 93 to 97 to 102). They put together a National League-record 257-game sellout streak and have surpassed 3 million in attendance for seven straight seasons.

But they're giving off a bit of an "all good things must come to an end" vibe this winter. Fresh off a 73-win season in which attendance dropped by more than 500,000, the Phillies made several moves that have been greeted with yawns or skepticism by the fan base. And even Amaro's closest friends and relatives might be hard-pressed to pick them to finish ahead of Atlanta or Washington in the National League East.

Barring a turnaround, the obligatory "general manager on the hot seat" references are only going to increase. Someone will have to answer the tough questions, and it won't be the Phillie Phanatic.

"I understand that," Amaro said. "I'm from Philadelphia and I get it. When we win, we're loved. When we lose, we're not.

"People say, 'Don't you think you feel like you've built up equity? You guys had so many years of success.' I'm like, 'Not here in Philadelphia, my friend.' It doesn't work like that here. We may have had one year of a pass, but our job is to try to get ourselves to the point where we're back again contending. Quickly."

Strangely eventful winter

It's been an intriguing offseason for the Phillies, even if they've been relatively restrained with their spending. At various points this winter, reports have surfaced that Amaro was weighing trade offers for All-Star outfielder Domonic Brown and actively shopping closer Jonathan Papelbon. At MLB's winter meetings, Roy Halladay made a splash by announcing his plans to retire -- as a Toronto Blue Jay. Three weeks ago, the Phillies landed a 25-year, $2.5 billion TV deal with Comcast SportsNet that's scheduled to begin after the 2015 season. Several days later, they made news by announcing that long-time broadcasters Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews will be replaced in the booth in 2014.

The team's roster moves have been less compelling. The Phillies signed free-agent outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract in November, re-signed catcher Carlos Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million deal and picked up starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez (the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona), who will compete with Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Jonathan Pettibone and Ethan Martin for one of the final two spots in the rotation in spring training. And now they're bringing back outfielder Bobby Abreu, another familiar face, on a minor league deal after he took a yearlong sabbatical from the game.

As the Feb. 13 reporting date for pitchers and catchers approaches, the Phillies are immersed in the obligatory fan outreach and promotion. Pitcher Jesse Biddle, third baseman Maikel Franco, outfielder Kelly Dugan and several other prospects recently came to Citizens Bank Park for an orientation program that included media training, a primer on team operations and a trip across the street to a 76ers game. Manager Ryne Sandberg spent some time with the prospects, then hit the road for several minor league-affiliate dinners.

When Sandberg mingles with the folks in Lehigh Valley, or Amaro succumbs to the temptation to monitor reaction to the team's moves as a way of gauging public sentiment, certain concerns and complaints about the Phillies are ever-present. Among them:

• This team is too old

According to Baseball-reference.com, the Phillies had the third-oldest contingent of position players in the majors last year (at an average age of 30.0), behind the Yankees and the Dodgers. And they didn't get any younger with the addition of the 36-year-old Byrd. Of the projected 2014 position-player starters, center fielder Ben Revere, third baseman Cody Asche and Brown are the only ones who weren't born during the 1970s.

I can't worry about whether I'm going to be the GM after this year or 15 years down the road. What's important is for me to do what I can do for the betterment and success of the organization both short and long-term. I believe in my instinctive ability to put together a winning and a championship club. I will always believe that. And I believe in our players.

-- Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.

Jimmy Rollins is 35 years old and coming off career lows for runs scored (65), home runs (6), slugging percentage (.348) and OPS (.667). Rollins logged a Wins Above Replacement of 6.1 during his MVP season in 2007; last year he posted a WAR of 0.2, with the worst defensive metrics of his career.

Chase Utley turned in a nice comeback season, with an .823 OPS over 131 games. But he's also 35, and he's missed 216 games over the past four seasons because of knee problems, so the Phillies are accustomed to holding their breath with him.

Ryan Howard is the biggest wild card of all, after losing much of the past two seasons to Achilles and knee injuries. Howard has dropped about 15 pounds and recently began baseball activities in Clearwater, Fla. He's "gung ho" for spring training to begin, according to Sandberg.

"First and foremost, we have to get production out of those core players," Amaro said. "If they don't produce and we have a drop-off from Ben Revere and Brownie, it will be a troublesome year. We're talking about human beings, and they have good and bad years. But most of these players have track records. If they're somewhere in the middle, they'll produce at a level that I think will make us contenders."

• The Phillies are prisoners to sentiment

While the Cardinals moved on from Albert Pujols to win a 2013 National League pennant, the Phillies have shown a resistance to parting with their longtime franchise mainstays. They signed Rollins to a three-year, $33 million contract in 2011, signed Howard to a five-year, $125 million deal that was widely panned even before his injury issues, and re-upped Utley last summer rather than deal him to a contender for prospects.

Sometimes the quickest route to getting better is to dump payroll, stockpile prospects and resign yourself to being really bad for a couple of years. By tying their fate to so many old favorites, the Phillies are running the risk of postponing the long-term building process and existing in a netherworld of mediocrity for several years. But Amaro, with significant input from club president Dave Montgomery, is taking a flyer on the old gang making it worthwhile to stay the course.

"We have season-ticket holders who've been loyal to us," Amaro said. "We have sponsors who are loyal to us and players who are loyal, and I think we owe it to the organization and the fans to do what we can to put a contending team on the field every year. Do we need to go through transitions? Yeah. Are we in the middle of that now? Yeah, I think we are. This particular year will give us more information on where we need to go. It's up to us to make those transitions quick."

• They're Sabermetrically impaired

Amaro, by his admission, is most comfortable evaluating talent through the instincts that he developed as a player, along with the input he receives from a kitchen cabinet that includes Gillick, Dallas Green, Charlie Kerfeld, Benny Looper and Gordon Lakey. He's particularly skeptical of some new defensive metrics that fuel front-office decisions, and he isn't shy about sharing that opinion. The Phillies recently took a step forward with the addition of analyst Scott Freedman, who has a mandate to hasten the transition to statistical enlightenment. Freedman joined the organization from the commissioner's office in November on a sort of trial-internship, but the Phillies liked what they saw enough to add him to their staff as a full-time hire several weeks ago.

Given Amaro's tilt toward gut instincts, the move was inevitably seen as a hollow gesture in some circles. One blogger wrote a post with the headline, "Phillies Hire the Analytics Guy They're Going to Ignore." As cynical as that sounds, the Phillies are behind the curve and need to play some catch-up.

"We're trying to move that piece of our organization forward a little bit," Amaro said. "It's an area that hasn't necessarily been abandoned, but it hasn't been developed as much as some other organizations. I think we're somewhere in the middle.

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Alex BrandonRyan Howard played just 80 games last season for the Phillies and finished the year with a .784 OPS.

"The important thing is to understand what's really important and what's minutiae. What data can we use to change some things for the better?"

• The talent pipeline is thin

Although Franco, Biddle, shortstop J.P. Crawford and several other Phillies minor leaguers have promise, Philadelphia's farm system is generally ranked in the bottom half or third in the game. Scouting director Marti Wolever has been hamstrung by picking near the bottom of the first round in several drafts and by the loss of some high selections through the free-agent compensation system. If Amaro is subject to criticism, it's for failing to get enough in trades for Hunter Pence (July 2012) or Cliff Lee (December 2009) to help replenish the system.

Even the kids are getting a little tired of hearing they're not good enough.

"You can't really pay too much attention to that," Biddle told reporters last week during his visit to Philly. "I am one of those guys they're saying can't help anything. When I'm listening to sports talk radio, which I do, when they talk about the Philadelphia minor leagues, I turn it off."

The Ryno factor

The Phils are pinning some of their hopes on the new manager and his coaches having a significant impact. Sandberg made it to the Hall of Fame thanks in part to his attention to detail, and he'll bring that same obsessive work ethic to his new job. Sandberg and his staff -- which includes former Phillies manager Larry Bowa -- will take a hands-on approach in making sure the team's practice habits are well-honed. During a recent phone conversation, Sandberg outlined his plans to work on situational hitting and bunting and hold regular defensive maintenance work for infielders, outfielders and pitchers.

Defense absolutely, positively needs to be a priority for the Phillies in 2014. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Phils ranked last in the majors in defensive runs saved last year at minus-103. The Cardinals were second-worst in the NL at minus-39, so the Phillies' deficiencies were particularly acute when compared to their closest competitors. Philadelphia's outfielders came in at a horrendous minus-46, and the addition of Byrd (plus-12) should actually be a boon to the team's run-prevention efforts.

The Phillies need to improve on their .306 team on-base percentage, 12th-best in the NL, and get more offensive production from an outfield that ranked near the bottom of the majors in multiple categories. They also need a better effort from a bullpen that ranked 27th in the majors in ERA (4.19) and issued a staggering 227 walks. Among the 30 MLB clubs, only Houston's bullpen gave up more.

One of Sandberg's biggest challenges will be saying no to the team's high-profile position players. His predecessor, Charlie Manuel, tended to give his stars free rein to decide when they would or wouldn't play, in part out of a sense of loyalty and gratitude to the players who won a World Series. Sandberg, in contrast, will be more proactive in giving the older guys regular rest.

"Maybe the schedule and the calendar or the travel situation will tell me, 'Hey, tomorrow is a good day to give this guy a break to keep him healthy and strong,'" Sandberg said. "It comes with open conversation, where they can come up to me and say, 'Hey, Skip, if you're thinking of giving me a blow, tomorrow might be a good day.' Not only is a day off good for them, but it's good for the teammate who could use four at-bats to stay sharp for the rest of the week. It's good for everybody."

In those same conversations with Phillies players, Sandberg can tell they were stung and embarrassed by the events of 2013 and want to ensure that it doesn't happen again. "Some of our players experienced something they haven't experienced in recent years," Sandberg said. "The motivation is all there, with guys wanting to improve on that and have more fun and win more games. This is not a rebuilding year by any means."

Amaro can't predict the future from his office overlooking Pattison Avenue, with the view of Lincoln Financial Field. But he's more sanguine about the prospects of a 73-89 team with an aging nucleus than he might have reason to be. He's also realistic about what this year could mean to his own future.

"I can't worry about whether I'm going to be the GM after this year or 15 years down the road," he said. "What's important is for me to do what I can do for the betterment and success of the organization both short- and long-term. I believe in my instinctive ability to put together a winning and a championship club. I will always believe that. And I believe in our players.

"It's funny, because what I read and what I get when I speak to people in public are different. Maybe people are uncomfortable telling me what they really think, but I feel really great support from our fans. I'm hopeful most of the stuff you get on blogs and the Internet is kind of a loud minority, but who knows? Maybe because I'm the GM, but I'm more bullish about our club than what you read about on the Internet or hear sometimes on the radio."

Regardless of the prevailing winds, the same truth applies: If the Phillies win, Amaro will be loved (or at least a lot more popular). If they lose, he won't. You don't have to live in Philadelphia to understand how that works.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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